Our Sufficiency Is from God

Sermon by David Strain on February 20, 2015

2 Corinthians 2:12-3:6

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Now if you would please take a copy of God’s Word in your hands and turn with me to the new Testament scriptures to Paul’s letter, second letter to the Corinthians – 2 Corinthians chapter 2. We’ll be reading from the twelfth verse of chapter 2. If you’re using one of our church Bibles you’ll find that on page 965. Before we read together, would you bow your heads with me as we pray? Let’s pray.


O Lord, as we turn our attention now to the reading and to the preaching of Your holy Word, we pray for the outpouring of Your Spirit to take Your Word, the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, and to drive it home to our hearts that the wounding and healing work of the Holy Spirit by the Scriptures would be performed in every one of us here this evening for the glory of Jesus, that in all things He might have the supremacy, in whose name we pray. Amen.


2 Corinthians chapter 2 from the twelfth verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:


“When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia.


But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.


Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.  And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.


Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.  Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”


Amen, and we thank God for His own holy and inerrant Word.

Well tonight we are marking an occasion of special gravity and joy in the life of our congregation here at First Presbyterian Church. The installation of a new minister is an indication to us of the kindness of God in answer to our prayers. It’s a mark that the Lord wills to deploy His servant among us to administer His Word for our nurture and the salvation of the lost. Few things happen in a church’s life of greater moment or significance. The weight of eternity presses in on us as we set apart our brother Ed for the work to which God has called him here. The passage we read together just a moment ago is one place where we are helped to see something of the weight and the wonder of Gospel ministry. It’s important for us to be sure to see the proceedings of the presbytery. This is a presbytery meeting; a commission of the presbytery conducted in the presence of the congregation to the glory of God. And it’s important for us to see the proceedings of the presbytery and to hear the vows taken and the solemnity of an evening like this as more than the routine administration of necessary forms, a hurdle to be jumped in order to have a new minister in place. Instead we ought to see all that is taking place and to sense anew with a thrill, God at work pursuing His design for some fresh extension of His kingdom, some new advances in spiritual growth and usefulness among us in this place. There ought to be a sense of expectation and thrill as we wait to see all that the Lord intends having brought Ed to us. Eternity presses in close tonight as we set apart our brother to be one of our pastors.


I.  The Design Of Gospel Ministry


So let’s take a look at our text together, shall we, and see something of the weight and the wonder of Gospel ministry – 2 Corinthians 2:12-3:6. And I want you to see five things. I’m going to be quick so I hope you’ll stick with me. Five things. You’ll find the first of them in verses 12 through 14. It is the design of Gospel ministry; the design of Gospel ministry. Paul has written already to the Corinthian Christians. There’s been a letter before now, a hard letter, calling the Corinthian Christians out for a number of things in their life together where they had been dishonoring God. And Paul has been anxiously waiting for their reply brought to him from them by the hand of Titus, hoping that their response to his letter would elicit from the Corinthians a humble penitent reply. In the meantime while he was waiting, he has moved to Troas as part of his ongoing itinerant preaching ministry. “A door,” he says in our passage, “was opened for me in the Lord to proclaim Christ.” Opportunity presents itself for effective ministry in Troas to the apostle Paul but he tells us he is unable to settle into the work. Verse 13 – “My spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there.” He could not take his mind off the Corinthians it seems. The absence of Titus was so profoundly troubling to him that he has to move on and comes instead to Macedonia.


The Fragrance of The Knowledge of God

It’s a reminder to us that Paul is, whatever else he is, a pastor like other pastors. We get a glimpse here, don’t we, of a pastor’s heart burdened by love for his people, concerned for their welfare, preoccupied by their needs, unable to function well in one place until pastoral issues are resolved in another place. He has his weaknesses and he is admitting them here. An opportunity for the Gospel has had to be given up because he simply could not focus on Troas while issues at Corinth remained unresolved. Such are the burdens of ministry. But do notice, verse 14, how the apostle Paul interprets all of that as he looks back on his move from Troas to Macedonia. “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.” The burdens of ministry led him to abandon one place and to move to another. It may have seemed at the time like a failure, a retreat, like he’s conceded defeat. But in fact, God was leading him in triumphal procession superintending it all, governing it all, to deploy His servant where He might usefully spread the fragrance of the knowledge of God everywhere. God governs the whole scenario, do you see, so that not only at Troas but now once again in Macedonia, Paul is going to spread the aroma of the good news.


The image that Paul is using here comes from an ancient Roman victory procession. At the head of the procession, the victorious conqueror rode in his chariot before the crowds and in his wake came conquered slaves made to carry burning incense and the incense diffused the smell, the fragrance, of the king’s victory. And Paul is saying wherever he is led by Christ in His providence he is led there as a slave in the Savior’s victory procession always disseminating the smell of Christ’s triumph. God has a grant design for Gospel ministry and for Gospel ministers and He rules their lives and presides even over their pressures and the burdens of their hearts so to shape them and to deploy them where He wills that the fragrance of the triumph of King Jesus at Calvary might be diffused all around.


What was God doing in the strange tangled paths by which He was ordering Paul’s steps at this moment in his ministry? What is God doing in the dead-ends and blind alleys and stops and starts and new directions by which He often leads His ministers? He is doing sermon preparation in their lives. That’s what He was doing. Ed, God has led you, hasn’t He, by sometimes hard and painful paths. Paths sometimes seemed to lead one way and ended up in an entirely different destination after all. And yet in it all, He has been crafting you and governing you so that you would be who you are and where you are in order that He might use you to spread the Gospel aroma effectively in this place and among these people. Praise be to God. The design of Gospel ministry.


II.  The Weight of Gospel Ministry


The Vertical Axis Of Gospel Ministry

Then secondly, notice from our text the weight of Gospel ministry. Look down at verses 15 and 16 for a moment. The weight of Gospel ministry. Paul describes Gospel ministry functioning along two axes. There is first of all a vertical axis, a God-ward axis. Gospel ministry is for God. And then secondly there’s a horizontal axis toward people. Gospel ministry is for the world. And the implications of both as we’ll see press down on Paul so that he cries out, “Who is sufficient for these things? Who is possibly up to such a task?” Look at the text. “We are the aroma of Christ to God” – there’s the God-ward, vertical axis. “The aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To one a fragrance from death to death; to the other a fragrance from life to life.” There’s the horizontal axis toward other people. “Who is sufficient for these things?”


          The Aroma of Christ

Now remember the image that Paul had been working with – the diffusing of the scent of the incense from a victory parade. That’s what he was describing his preaching being like. But now in verse 15 he uses a different image. Notice the word translated in our version, “aroma” – “We are the aroma of Christ to God.” Not “fragrance.” That was his word in verse 14; it will be again in verse 16, but now “aroma.” It’s a word with sacrificial overtones. It was used in the Greek Old Testament scriptures for the smell of the burnt offerings sacrificed on the temple altar well-pleasing to God. When Paul thinks about Gospel ministry with reference to God, the incense of a victory parade simply will not do. Instead, he is ready to mix metaphors a little and he uses sacrificial language, worship language instead. Here is the heaviest weight that rests on Gospel ministers. It is not the pressure to perform well or pastor wisely or lead skillfully. It’s not the burden of casting vision, whatever that means, shaping policy. It’s not the challenge of teaching and preaching faithfully. Those are not inconsiderable weights that press down upon a Gospel minister but they are not the heaviest weights.


         The Universal Holiness of Life

What is the greatest weight placed upon those of us called to shepherd the flock of God? It is the weight of godliness; the weight of godliness. It is the call to conduct ourselves and our ministries not first for the good of our people but first and supremely and explicitly and above all for the honor and glory of God. Faithful Gospel ministry, Paul says, is “an aroma of Christ to God.” It is redolent of Jesus’ own ministry. It echoes and it mimics much of Christ in a minister’s life. The suffering is there. The humility is to be there. The sacrificial service is to be there. The prayerfulness, the zeal for God’s name and honor are all to be there. Faithful Gospel ministry, Paul says, smells like Christ in the nostrils of God. Nothing is more pleasing to God than the likeness of His Son formed in the life and in the work of those who are called to preach His Son to others. Pray for the holiness of your ministers when you pray for us. I know you pray for us. When you pray for Ed, make number one priority praying for our holiness, that we would be to God the aroma of Christ in all our labors. This is our weightiest task – likeness to Jesus. “Study universal holiness of life,” wrote Robert Murray M’Cheyne to a correspondent who was beginning a new ministry. He said, “Your whole usefulness depends on this. Your sermons may last but an hour or two” – some of you give me grief for preaching for thirty-five minutes! “Your sermons may last for an hour or two; your life preaches all the week. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.” A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God. Pray that Ed Hartman would be a man of God, that he would be the aroma of Christ to God, that he may be glorifying to Him and useful to you.


The Horizontal Axis of Gospel Ministry

There’s also a horizontal axis to Gospel ministry. It is turned toward the world. Look at the passage again. While a Gospel minister is to be the aroma of Christ to God, when it comes to His work among those who are being saved and those who are perishing he’s not an aroma. Notice the sacrificial term is dropped and he returns to a fragrance – back to the language of the triumphal procession, the victory parade; a fragrance from death to death or life to life. It’s an interesting way to put it, isn’t it? It’s not just that the Gospel preached is the fragrance of death to those who reject Jesus, life to those who accept Him. It’s not just that when they smell the fragrance of Jesus in the proclamation of the good news they are struck with the certainty of their fate. It’s more than that. Look at what Paul says. It’s rather that the fragrance of the preached Gospel is the scent of death that leads to death for rebels against King Jesus. And it is the fragrance of Christ that leads to life for those who trust in the Lord. Which means that when Gospel ministers preach the Word, eternal destinies are worked out in response; eternal destinies are being worked out. Hell’s fury or heaven’s glory are secured as the Word of God is proclaimed. Judgment or deliverance, life or death, wrath or reconciliation bursts in upon the souls of men and women, boys and girls as Gospel ministers open to them the Word of God.


         The Inadequacy of The Minister

Here’s the gravity of our task, brothers in the ministry, men who are training at our seminary, people of God who pray for their pastors and sit under their ministry, here is the weight of Gospel work – as the Bible is explained and applied with love and passion and urgency and people are pointed to the cross, the eternal purposes of God in election and reprobation, the everlasting fate of those who hear is being settled in response. Who would not tremble at the enormity of the implications that attend the ministry of the Word? “Who is sufficient for these things?” Paul cries out, as the weight of it bears down upon him. I think Paul would say, in view of this passage, “If you do not feel your inadequacy for the work of ministry, you have no business being in it.” If you don’t feel the inadequacy that is really yours as you set out on this course of ministry, Ed, you ought not to begin the work. You ought to feel inadequate; I know that you do and I do too and your ministers here, your brother ministers do as well. We feel ourselves crying out, “Who is sufficient for these things?” That is the posture of the apostle Paul and it’s an appropriate posture as the weight of ministry presses down upon us.


III.  The Shape of Gospel Ministry


What It Is Not Like – Preaching to Live

The design of ministry, the weight of ministry, thirdly, the shape of ministry. Verse 17 – what is Gospel ministry like? First of all notice what it’s not like. “We are not like so many peddlers of God’s Word.” It’s not a way to make ends meet, merely. It’s not a mere profession. It is not an exercise in salesmanship. We’re not peddlers of the Word of God. The word Paul uses there was sometimes used of unscrupulous innkeepers who watered down the wine to cheat their customers and make a quick buck. That’s not what a Gospel minister does. We’re not to dilute the message to corrupt or adulterate the Word. We don’t cut corners; we don’t cheat the people. We don’t use ministry to line our pockets at the expense of the flock.


What it Is Like – Living to Preach

But then notice what Gospel ministry is. “But as from sincerity, as commissioned by God in the sight of God, we speak in Christ.” Paul says we are to conduct ourselves with integrity, sincerity under the commission of heaven, and corem deo – before the gaze of God who sees all that we do. And we are always to speak in Christ as His agent and His spokesman. Faithful Gospel ministers do not preach for a living, do you see? Faithful Gospel ministers live to preach. They live to preach. As from sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.


IV.  The Fruits of Gospel Ministry


The design of Gospel ministry, the weight of Gospel ministry, the shape of Gospel ministry, then fourthly, chapter 3:1-3, the fruits of Gospel ministry. He’s been talking about his own sincerity, his integrity in contrast to the charlatans who were abusing the Bible for their own personal gain in Corinth. He says, “I’m not like that. Faithful Gospel ministry’s not like that.” But then he anticipates an objection. Do you see it there in the passage? “Are we now commending ourselves to you? Do we need letters of recommendation? Are we now trying to carve out a market share of your attention, jostling with the completion at Corinth for some meager slice of your respect? Is that what this is about?” No, he says, verse 2, “You yourselves are all the commendation my ministry really needs. You want to know if my ministry is the real deal? You just need to look at the evidence of changed lives.” Changed lives – that is Paul’s point. You show you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh. He’s quoting there from the promises of the new covenant, Jeremiah 31:33 where the Holy Spirit writes the law on our hearts and Ezekiel 36:26 where He will take away hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. Faithful Gospel ministry is conducted, do you see, under the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit so that looking at the lives of the people of God sitting under such a ministry, everyone can read the Spirit’s own handwriting as He inscribes God’s holy law, the echo of His character, the likeness of Jesus Christ upon the hearts of His people.


What is the fruit of Gospel ministry? It is people, ordinary folks from all kinds of backgrounds changed forever as God the Holy Spirit wields His Word in our hearts through His servants whom He has given to the church. That is the great need of the hour, you know; not storytellers or flatterers or comedians or pulpiteers. We need slaves, marching in the victory procession of King Jesus, spreading the fragrance of the Gospel everywhere resulting in changed lives, changed lives.


V.  The Resources of Gospel Ministry


The design of Gospel ministry, the weight of Gospel ministry, the shape of Gospel ministry, the fruit of Gospel ministry, and then finally and briefly the resources for Gospel ministry. Look at chapter 3 verses 4 to 6. We’ve outlined the contours of a minister’s calling and his work with Paul in the verses that precede this one. And let’s be honest; it’s a pretty demanding job description, don’t you think? It’s overwhelming. Paul has cried out, “Who is sufficient for these things? I feel meager and threadbare and slight and puny under the weight of the task that God has given to me.” That’s what he’s saying. If I’ve seen anything in Ed Hartman it is his awareness that he is not strong enough, wise enough, good enough, gifted enough, smart enough, sufficient enough on his own to meet all the demands of a minister of the new covenant. He has, if I may say so, the grace of humility and he knows he isn’t up to the task all on his own. And neither am I and neither is any one of your ministers nor all of us in combination. The weight and the gravity and the scope and the complexity of the work of the ministry is beyond us by nature. We are not sufficient for these things.


So where does Paul’s confidence come from? Verse 4 – “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.” Where does this confidence come from? How will you avoid being overcome as you set out upon the work God has called you to, Ed? And what should you pray for, people of First Presbyterian Church, as you intercede for your ministers? Look at the text. “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills but the Spirit gives life.” God makes ministers. God empowers ministers. God makes them sufficient and gives them fuel for their empty tanks and rest for their weary bodies. He blows the wind of His Spirit into the slack sails of their feeble preaching so that it suddenly, not because of their rhetoric, not because of the force of their personality, but because of the presence of the Spirit of Christ, their preaching is driven along with force and life and power. God does it by the Spirit who gives life. So pray for Ed, pray for the ministry team here, pray for one another that God would fill us with the Spirit and make us sufficient for the work to which He has called us, so that all that Ed does among us in the years ahead might be the pleasing aroma of Christ to God and a life-giving Gospel fragrance diffused among us and from us to the ends of the earth.


Amen. Shall we pray together?

O Lord our God, we delight in the knowledge that though we are not enough, strong enough, wise enough, good enough, You have power for the weakest among us to use us for Your glory. And we pray now as we come to the portion of our service where we are setting apart our brother for the Gospel work here, that You would indeed fill him with Your Spirit, that he may be a pleasing aroma of Christ in Your nostrils and the fragrance of life to life among all who hear Him. For Jesus’ sake we pray, amen.

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